By no stretch of the imagination do I purport to have any knowledge of South Korean history or understanding of their current cultural situation.
Therefore a potted history taken from the preface of “Maninbo: Peace & War” by Ko Un may help to put some of the cultural themes to the fore:
In early 1960 the citizens began to protest, provoked by blatantly falsified election results. On 19 April 1960 thousands of university students and high school students marched on the Blue House, the presidential mansion, demanding new elections and calling for Syngman Rhee’s (a US installed leader in the 1940’s) resignation, the numbers growing to over 100,000. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing approximately 180 and wounding thousands. On 26 April, President Rhee stepped down from power and went into voluntary exile. This series of events is known as the April revolution.
South Korea adopted a parliamentary system which considerably weakened the power of the president and so, while Yun Bo-seon was elected president on 13 August 1960, real power was vested in the prime minister. Following months of political instability, on 19 May 1961 Lt General Park Chung-hee launched a cou d’état overthrowing the short lived second Republic of South Korea and replacing it with a military junta and later the autocratic third Republic of South Korea. Almost at once, he authorised the establishment 1961 of the Korean Central intelligence agency. This was the notorious office responsible for the repression of political and social descent throughout his time in power, and beyond. After Yun resigned in 1962, Lt General Park consolidated his power by becoming acting president. In 1963, he was elected president in his own right. In 1971, Park won another close election against his rival, Kim Dae-jung. Shortly after being sworn in, he declared a state of emergency, and in October 1972, Park dissolved the legislature and suspended the 1963 constitution. The so-called Yushin (‘revitalising’) Constitution was approved in heavily rigged plebiscite in November 1972.
Meanwhile, South Korea had begun the process of industrialisation and urbanisation that were to catapult it to its current position in the world. This was done at the expense of many basic human rights, with low wages, absence of trade unions, arbitrary arrests and random killings. Finally, as more and more people taking to the streets to do demand a return to democracy and a liberalisation of society, Park seemed to be preparing a violent crackdown when he was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, The head of the Korean Central intelligence agency, on 26 October 1979.
For a while, it seemed that the dreamed-of restoration of democracy might happen, but on 18 May 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup while provoking an uprising in the south-western city of Gwangju which left hundreds dead. All the leading dissidents were thrown into prison and a new dictatorship began.
After continuing resistance and sacrifice on the part of many dissidents, climaxing in huge demonstrations in June 1987 which forced the dictatorial regime to accept the Democratic Constitution, Korea was finally able to elect a civilian president in 1992.
It is against this backdrop of dissent, rebellion and corruption that the themes of “The Vegetarian” become clearer.
Broken into three parts “The Vegetarian” opens with the first person narration by Yeong-hye’s husband, a plain man with no ambitions;
I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I could be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.
He is married to a plain unremarkable woman, our protagonist, Yeong-hye;
However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started to appear in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.
The basic plot of Han Kang’s novel is Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian (vegan in fact as she also avoids, dairy, eggs, wearing leather etc.) and the subsequent consequences. The first section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, the middle section a third person story of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s relationship with her after her vegetarianism and the final section another third person account from the view of Heong-hye’s sister and husband of the artist featured in section two.
Let’s forget the linear plot as the sub-plot is the more interesting account here. This is a novel that explores institutionalisation, in many different forms, what it means to push against the norm, to what extent to we really have “freedom of choice”? The simple act of declaring her vegetarianism leads Yeong-hye to undergo ostracising by numerous peoples, not just her husband and her family, but governmental bodies, health professionals and more.
This is a novel that raises all the social norms, the familial norms, governmental norms, general rules of society, for example when is it okay to go semi-naked, when is it okay to choose what you eat, when is it okay to have a different appearance?
As the novel progresses the “kicking against the pricks” crosses into art, nature, sexual mores and begins to question our beliefs of what constitutes beauty, is it in the eye of the beholder? Is it something we have been programmed or influenced to believe?
The whole situation was undeniably bizarre, yet she displayed an almost total lack of curiosity, and indeed it seemed that this was what enabled her to maintain her composure no matter what she was faced with. She made no move to investigate the unfamiliar space, and showed none of the emotions that one might expect. It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hand wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn’t look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.
A novel that questions social norms and raises questions such as, when someone is different why do we see vulnerability? The inner sleeve tells us that Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshy prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.”
Why did you use to bare your breasts to the sunlight, like some kind of mutant animal that had evolved to be able to photosynthesize?
A wonderfully rich, multi layered work, that questions a raft of social issues on many levels. Written in a sparse, almost detached style, the translation is obviously reflective of a deeper South Korean cultural awareness and allows the reader to subtly become haunted by Yeong-hye’s journey from a meat eater to a natural being.
Surely a work that will feature on the upcoming Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists, and one I expect to go far in both of these awards. A work of rebellion but without the ra-ra of some books, a haunting journey of what it means to resist.